If you had to condense the essence of Cambodia down to one thing, it wouldn’t be the temples of Angkor. They are famous and draw the tourists, but they are nothing more than crumbling stones. The reason why those temples were built where they were, and the reason why much of the population lives where they do, is Tonlé Sap.
Technically a river (hereby referred to as a lake), Tonlé Sap is the body of water which is the heart of the country. It is a remarkable lake for many reasons.
- It is easily the largest body of freshwater in South East Asia.
- The size of the lake varies dramatically over the course of the year. During the monsoon it is over 16,000 sq/km and during the dry season is shrinks to 2,700 sq/km. The depth of the water can vary by over 10m as well.
- The direction of flow changes throughout the course of the year as well. During the dry season it drains into the Mekong. During the wet season, it floods the surrounding plains.
- When the water is high, the flooding into the forests and plains makes for an excellent breeding environment for fish. I was at Tonle Sap during the high water season, and fishing was restricted during this period. Once the dry season starts and breeding has stopped, fishing can start again.
All the nature trivia aside, the most interesting thing about Tonlé Sap are the people who live there. Thousands of people live in floating villages, living most of their lives on the water. Many of the hospitals, schools, temples and newspapers are floating and move with the water. Where you live in October might be many kilometers away from where you might live in March.
The people who live on Tonlé Sap are poor. Among the poorest in Cambodia. They livelihood is almost entirely dependent on fishing, which was not in season while I was there. Oddly enough, I watched a National Geographic show on Tonlé Sap last night which confirmed something one of my guides told me when I was there: when they can’t fish, they hunt and eat snakes. The ethnic make up of Tonlé Sap is also different than most of Cambodia. There are many ethnic Thai, Vietnamese and Cham (Cambodian Muslims) people who live there.
I was able to visit Tonlé Sap on two separate occasions during my time in Cambodia: once as part of a normal tuk tuk tour of the Siem Reap area, and the second time was a boat trip down the length of Tonlé Sap from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It is a remarkable life the people lead. Other than taking their fish to market, they can’t ever really be on dry land that often. I saw school kids coming home from school by boat, kids playing in boats, and entire families in some parts of the lake fishing together (I don’t think schools are available everywhere on the lake).
During my tour I visited a Vietnamese floating school. I was so moved by everything I saw during my day up until that point, I went to the local floating village store and purchased notebooks and pencils for the whole school. (At first I wasn’t thinking and just got notebooks. My guide then pointed out “they need to write with something”.)
Some of the villages I saw down river seems a bit more elaborate than the floating villages to the north. They were on stilts for starters, not floating, and you could see a forest of TV antennas sprouting from the rooftops of the houses.
Other than fishing, the big source of income for people on the lake is raising Siamese Crocodiles. Many houses will have a pen where the crocodiles are raised for their hide, which is the softest crocodile hide on Earth. The Siamese Crocodile has mostly disappeared from the wild in Tonle Sap, but are abundant in captivity. The feeding of snakes to the crocodiles are threatening native snakes who live in the lake. The snakes are fed due to the restrictions on fishing during the wet season.
I knew next to nothing about Tonle Sap before I visited Cambodia and it ended up being one of the high point of my time there. It is a place and a way of life which can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.